Reimagine a food system that is community- and human-centered.
An immediate feeling of warmth and enchantment came over me as I made my way through the mulberry and olive trees between the old farmhouse and the cobb wood-fired oven at The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, California. I took in abundant flora wandering through the Children’s Center. It felt like a secret garden. This was the area where The Ecology Center was first established, a now 14-year-old edible food forest.
The Ecology Center’s mission is to serve the region as both a farm and educational center. They are pioneers in what’s called Regenerative Organic Agriculture (ROA). In short, ROA focuses on the long-term health of the land in lieu of short-term profits. It rejects many of industrial agriculture’s detrimental practices, which have led to a loss of genetic crop diversity, inequitable working conditions, and have contributed to climate change.
As I continued past the food forest and toward the 28-acre farm, Irving, The Ecology Center’s fermentation specialist, Irving, was smoking a bushel of fragrant green onions over a bed of hot, glowing embers. He was making a batch of smoked vinaigrettes from the fresh bounty just yards away from the fire he had built. “We don’t waste anything here on the farm,” he said.
The Path to The Ecology Center
We interviewed Founder and Executive Director of The Ecology Center, Evan Marks, who is running the only Regenerative Organic Certified farm in Southern California, who beautifully shared the importance of community in regenerative farming and how his center is educating the next generation to continue stewarding the land in this way.
Evan: This land that we’re on is very sacred and special. It’s a 140-year-old working farm and there’s a lot of culture that extends thousands of years beyond that with the Acjachemen Tribe. I stepped onto this land in 2008, then a simplified organic farming operation. I was fresh back into town after 10 years gone. I learned about how to build community and grow food that creates no harm during my degree at University of California, Santa Cruz and took those ideas of how to build community and grow food that creates no harm on the road to Latin America and Africa, exploring agroecology and ecological design.
Seven years of designing large scale agro-ecosystems, 1000-acre ecological communities, villages of hundreds of acres, small backyard dwellings and everything in between brought me back to San Juan Capistrano. I grew up in Newport Beach as a surfer but never thought I’d come back to Orange County. I had an aversion to the stereotype of this community being so driven by consumerism, and it was always a mystery of whether ecological consciousness was interesting or even viable in the community here. Yet, there has been overwhelming participation and depth from those around us seeking new futures, and ways to build relationships and harmony with one another and the land.
In 2008-2009 we came across a city-owned a 140-year-old empty farmhouse and a one-acre dirt lot and quickly went to work, planting seeds, building community and starting a small farm. We brought The Boys and Girls Club kids from next door to grow food and teach cooking classes. We hosted thought leaders from around the country and world to host speaker series, and we brought chefs together with farmers to create meaningful farm dinners around what our food system could and should be. The first 10 years of our work was an ecological education center.
Now it has turned into a 28-acre Regenerative Organic Certified™ operation. It’s more than a farm, it’s a village—we’re farmers, artists, chefs, makers, teachers, and parents. We’re all concerned about the future, and we have taken the reigns of how we want to move forward into the 21st century. The farm is the heart and center; we grow about 200 different ingredients at any one time, so the biodiversity is much more significant than that at large. It has incredible diversity of flowers, fruit, vegetables, and herbs.
Most importantly, we’re here to mentor the next generation, so all our ingredients are the nourishment of the spirit, soul. and imagination. The capacity that we as humans can be better and be the best for the world, not the best in the world, is something that we strive to be.
Regenerative Agriculture Is a New Word for an Old Idea
Evan: My mentor, Steve Gliessman, created a word that paired ecological principles with the cultural relationship of growing food, agriculture—sustainable agriculture. This was not a novel idea, in that humans have been ecologically growing food for thousands of years. There are great examples around the world of 40 centuries of great ecological and agricultural stewardship.
Today the term “regenerative” is very popular and common. And what that means from a certification standpoint is a few different things: caring for animals in a humane way; caring for people and paying living wages and bringing them along the food system; and caring for our soil and our natural resources. This farm is one of the few of its type —certified regenerative organic, and we’re very proud of that. We’ve always applied these methodologies, and we had to put a little bit of extra lexicon to those practices.
We have learned along the way, for example, our wage wasn’t good enough. That was a real leveling up for us. For us to get the regenerative certification we were required to pay our workers more. We had to figure out how to make that happen and we did. We’re very proud to pay our workers a living wage and learn how to build a business that can sustain that.
People are at the center of our work. There are people that help underwrite this work, and it’s not the folks that are marketing it which is beautiful. There is a philanthropic community that is committed to the planet. We have a lot of gratitude for those that share their surplus with The Ecology Center to help build the farm of the future. Our goal is to be the first of a new generation.
The 28-acre operation is the only of its type in our buyer region, and we want to transcend that quickly. We have a farm training program and have since incubated two farms–one in Anaheim and one in Encinitas. Our goal over the next generation is to incubate a new culture of agriculture in Southern California.
Successes and Challenges of Farming Regeneratively
Evan: The farm is a petri dish for putting our values to work. The challenge is holding the ecological integrity, financial sustainability, and the equity of the people at their highest. There is tension at a ROC farm to be able to pay living wages and make sure that no one is left behind without food. What is the cost of paying for the food, paying workers’ living wages, and the distribution of food for those who can’t pay? It is hard, complex conversation, and we are trying to reimagine a food system that is community- and human-centered.
We do not want to and cannot afford to sell any wholesale produce. Every ingredient that comes out of this amazing operation goes right out the front door, and it’s in the relationship that we have with our community that allows us to sustain the vision. In my 20 years of work and experience in the movement, I don’t see a way to achieve ecological agriculture without having a direct relationship to the community. Every farm that I have ever looked up to is in direct relationship with the community around them and not necessarily a global one.
We haven’t figured it all out–we are babies on the journey–a sophisticated and complex operation in the middle of a suburban environment. We are quickly learning every day and having a hell of good time doing it, which is the best part.
Evan: The future is abundant and we’re going to make it so with all of us rowing together. We are so enthusiastic about the journey and put our values first of caring for the planet, caring for people, and sharing our surplus. Our community joins us every day and learns new skills together, creates meaningful memories and each day takes a step forward into sowing a healthier future together for our children.
I am humbled to be supporting the orchestration of these ideas and love the people I get to collaborate with. We exist to mentor the next generation and it’s a long game for us at The Ecology Center. Our agreement on the property is an incredible 40 years. We are designing a farm that can imagine a new relationship to food for our entire community.